Halachic Analysis: Getting Drunk on Purim

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[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman]

It is one halacha that parents just don’t like at all.

It is also one that they do not really have an answer for.

“But Mom, Dad, you are always telling me to keep halacha, and this is a Shulchan Aruch! The Shulchan Aruch states quite clearly (OC 695:2), ‘A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point where he cannot distinguish between Boruch Mordechai and Arur Haman.’  It’s halacha, Mom!”

“Oh yeah, well it’s also a halacha to honor your mother and father!  And you are not drinking! Period.”

“Well, we’ll see, everyone else is..”

“I don’t care about everyone else.  If you drink – no car privileges!  End of story.”

DIFFERENT REACTIONS

There will generally be two types of readers of this article.  Those that are appalled at the excess drinking, the car accidents, the ER visits, the stench of vomit and the genuine desecration of G-d’s Name when all this debauchery is witnessed by civil servants and goyim alike.

There will also be those who will think, “Calm down.  People need a bit of a break and there is nothing wrong with getting drunk a little bit.  It is only once or twice a year, anyhow.”

There will also be a third type who will be perhaps a bit more inquisitive and observe that this particular ruling of Chazal is generally not like other rulings.  They will question what exactly happened here.  I would like to present a possible theory.

The aforementioned Shulchan Aruch derives the halacha from a statement of Rava in Megillah 7b.  There are variant texts of this Gemorah – the examination and explanation of which are for another time.  Let us direct our attention to another Gemorah.

THE YERUSHALMI AND THREE INTERPRETATIONS

Elsewhere, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Tractate Shabbos 8:1) explains that Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai would only drink wine from Pesach to Pesach.  The implication is that Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai did not drink wine on Purim.  The Talmud Bavli has a similar statement in Nedarim (49b).

There are three possible understandings of this passage of the Yerushalmi.  The first is that indeed, this is the case, but the halacha is not in accordance with Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai.  The second possibility is that we are misreading the import and implication of this Yerushalmi.  The third possibility is that Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai had a perfectly valid reason not to consume wine on Purim and was in complete accordance with our statement in the Gemorah which is cited by the Shulchan Aruch.

The Shaarei Teshuva (695:2) writes clearly that we should interpret the Yerushalmi in this third method.    This third understanding of the Yerushalmi understands that  Rabbi Yehuda Ben Illai had a weaker constitution and that drinking wine would actually damage his health, body or general welfare.

WE ARE ALL LIKE RABBI YEHUDAH BAR ILLAI

A very good argument can be made that in contemporary times we all share the status of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai.

How so?

According to the National Institute of Health [See http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body ], drinking too much –  even on a single occasion, can take a serious toll on your health.  Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:

Brain:
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works.   This is even on a single occasion.

Heart:
Drinking a lot, even on a single occasion, can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
  • Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure

Liver:
Heavy drinking, over time, can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:

  • Steatosis, or fatty liver
  • Alcoholic hepatitis (single occasion)
  • Fibrosis
  • Cirrhosis

Pancreas:
Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.

Cancer:
Drinking too much alcohol can, over time, increase the risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Throat
  • Liver

Immune System:
Drinking too much can weaken the immune system, making it a much easier target for disease.  Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

According to “Alcohol Use and Abuse,” a Harvard Health Publication, the use of alcohol nowadays is fraught with danger, and is often quite damaging to the body.  Among the effects are:

  • Alcohol has some very harmful and permanent effects on developing brains and bodies.
  • For adolescents ages 15 to 20, alcohol is implicated in more than a third of driver fatalities resulting from automobile accidents and about two-fifths of drowning, r”l.
  • Drinking interferes with good judgment, leading  young people into risky behavior and making them vulnerable to all sorts of other problems.
  • Teenagers who use alcohol and tobacco are at greater risk of using other drugs.
  • Teenagers who drink are more likely to develop behavioral problems, including stealing, fighting, and skipping school.
  • Underage drinking is illegal, and there are and have been some serious consequences and repercussions of arrests.

OTHERS CERTAINLY ARE IN THE RAV YEHUDAH BAR ILLAI STATUS

Let us not make the tragic error that we are above any of these problems.  They exist in our communities and often under our very noses.  Even if it was not true that alcohol consumption constitutes a “Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai risk” to a particular individual, the very fact that new and more dangerous technologies have developed in the past century that can greatly increase dangers to other around us, the status of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Illai would apply to others around us.   Automobiles did not exist in previous times and cars plus alcohol endanger the welfare of others.  In our communities, not one year has gone by in recent years where alcohol consumption did not cause a major tragedy or accident.

As far as the Mitzvah itself is concerned, the opinion of the Ravya (564) and the Mordechai (Megillah Chapter 2) and the response of the Maharil (#56) is that even back in the time of Chazal it was not obligatory, rather it is a “Mitzvah b’almah” – an ideal that is no way obligatory.   The Ramah cites these views as halacha.

Some will invariably make the argument that drinking large amounts of alcohol was always the practice. How can we now, all of a sudden, assume that it is a health risk and declare that we all share the status of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai?

The answer to this question rests within an answer to yet another question.  According to the National Vital Statistic Reports of 2004 (52 #14), the life span of Americans has nearly doubled since 1900. What modern innovation contributed the most to the increase in human longevity?   The answer is most likely, the refrigerator and the decline in the use of salt as a preservative.  Salt kills.  We have lowered our consumption of it and now we live longer.  The same is true with alcohol.

It is my contention that the Shaarei Teshuvah’s understanding of the Yerushalmi  is the one that is halachically most cogent (as it does not posit a contradiction of sources).  It is also my view that all of us fall within the rubric of the exemption of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Illai, and should not drink to the point of anywhere near drunkenness – even according to the Poskim that do not agree with the Ramah’s reading.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN 5TJT




15 COMMENTS

  1. Another great article by Rabbi Hoffman.

    I would like to include that the same author of Shulchan Aruch who said to drink on Purim also said in the B”Y that there is no greater sin than drunkenness. Clearly, getting drunk is not so simple.

  2. To the Editor of YWN – Just a thought. Is it מותר to post a picture on line that will inevitably cause בושה the the poor drunken fellow in the picture? Couldn’t you have blurred out his face?

    Keep in mind that it is possible that this was the first time he ever got drunk and he learned his lesson. I have a son that got really drunk one year at our table (I hadn’t realize how much he was drinking) and after an unpleasant experience (I’ll spare you the details) he never drank again.

  3. MDG:
    You are mechavein to the Aruch Hashulchan’s kashya and he says tzarich iyun and maybe in the Sh”A he meant ad velo ad bichlal.
    The point is that the vast majority of mefarshim either understand ad delo yada in a non-literal way or that the story of Rabba and R’ Zeira is docheh Rava’s halacha. Notable exceptions who actually advocate getting swazzled are the Rema in Mechir Yayin, the Bach (to some extent) and the Chacham Tzvi who in his youth fulfilled the gemara kepshuto.

  4. The effects you cite apply to long term heavy drinking. Almost all medical authorities agree that moderate alcohol consumption, that is 2 oz of 100 proof spirits, or equivalent amounts of wine or beer daily, is not only not harmful, but actually beneficial to one’s health.

    Of course, the article is referring to what amounts to binge drinking on Purim which is a horse of a different color. Frankly, I don’t see the harm in buchrim getting a little drunk on Purim with some supervision. Keep the car keys hidden and gently lead any who are to far gone to bed. A thumping hangover is a pretty good object lesson in sobriety.

  5. I never saw a ben torah drunk in my life ( 75 yrs old ) I did see lots of AMARATZIM DRUNK ——–WHY NOT THEY ARE AMARATZIM. iT DOSNT SAY ANYWHERE IN HALACHA THAT U SHOULD GET DRUNK PROOVE IT AND YOU GET $100. PS its a chukas hagopi with 3 issurim.Show me one TC who ever got plastered ONE? i challange you ONE ????????? A yorai shamayim drunk is like a real Rosh yehivah going W/O begadim

  6. Although I respect Rav Hoffman very much, none-the-less I feel it necessary to tackle this issue using a different approach. As we see from Eliezer (Eved Avraham) when speaking to Betu’el and Lavan distorted the chronological events of the story of Rivka at the well. Chazal explain that he realized that you need to explain things to people based on the way they think.

    In all honesty, it’s the boys we need to talk to, not the parents. We can talk ourselves blue in the face stating all the opinions that חיב איניש is לאו דוקא. However, every Yeshiva Bachor knows that there is an opinion (מסתמה the מחבר) that it is כפשותו ממש! And that’s what they cling on to! So we need to discuss it from that angle. So here’s my attempt boys!

    שולחן עורך – תרצה, ב

    חיב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

    SING IT BOYS!!!!

    OK, ENOUGH!!!

    What’s פשת?
    It seems that we are supposed to get drunk until we are so blasted that we don’t know between Arur “Lapid” (Sorry, “Haman”) L’Baruch Mordechai!!!!

    So I ask you a couple of questions (for those of you with a brain):
    1) Why? – Why does Chazal want us to get drunk (or drink)?
    2) How? – How can we obligate people to do something that the Torah, Neviim, and many other Seforim warn against doing when considering the dangers involved?! פלא אצום!!!

    Of course, only “TRUE” Bnei Torah are willing to listen to the answers! So the rest of you go back to your foolishness! (כְּכֶלֶב, שָׁב עַל-קֵאוֹ – כְּסִיל, שׁוֹנֶה בְאִוַּלְתּוֹ)

    The Biur Halacha brings down the Eliya Raba who says that “being that the miracles of that time all came about through the drinking of wine, therefore חז”ל instituted to drink wine in order to recognize the great miracle that resulted in their drinking.” (not quoted verbatim)
    He ends off explaining that they didn’t really “obligate” one to drink, but rather by doing so, one “fulfills a Mitzvah”.

    (Thus, those of you who deep down don’t really want to drink, don’t worry and don’t give into peer pressure!)

    However, let’s not overlook our main point! I will re-quote the main line in Hebrew.

    ולכן חיבו חכמים להשתכר “עד כדי שיהא נזכיר הנס הגדול בשתית היין”

    I ask you, what does that mean, עד כדי שיהא נזכיר הנס הגדול בשתית היין?

    I will leave it up to you to interpret. Regardless of what’s פשת, one thing is for sure. Chazal want you to use this opportunity to contemplate! If you don’t and you’re just running around having a fun time and making a fool of yourself, you’re no more than a faker who’s using an excuse to act like a גוי!

    Let’s go further.

    Okay, that explain “WHY”, but what about the “HOW”? How can we involve ourselves in something that is SO frowned down by the Torah and Chazal all over the place?

    Let take a look at another Biur Halachah:

    He brings the Meiri who says, ” A person is required to increase his joy on this day through food and drink (meaning wine) until he’s not lacking anything (I assume this means until he feels he’s got everything he could ever want), HOWEVER… he is not required to drink until he “reduces himself” through his party! (I understand this to mean… DON’T MAKE YOURSELF INTO A LAUGHING STOCK!!! DON’T MAKE YOURSELF THE TALK OF THE TOWN TOMORROW!!!)
    He states further, “…and NOT to party with immodestly and frivolity!… but rather to party with joy that brings us to LOVE OF HASHEM and PRAISES for the MIRACLES he’s done for us!!!”.

    That’s the Meiri!

    Guys, does that describe us? Really?

    The Biur Halachah then quotes the Chaya Adam. I will spare you the full quote and jump to the end, “…however, one who knows that (by getting drunk) he will neglect to fulfill “any” mitzvah, IT IS BETTER THAT HE DOESN’T DRINK!!!” (Guess what?! He includes in his list of slights, LEVITY!!! (I.E. Goofing off!!))

    cont.
    “…ALL A PERSON’S ACTIONS NEED TO BE L’SHAIM SH’MIYIM!!!”

    Guys! Are we holding there?! Are we really drinking for Purim?! Are we really drinking for the Mitzvah?! Really?

    BTW – keep in mind, all I said is written on the Mechaber, not the Rema. Thus, I assume they are giving Pshat in the Mechaber, and not being Cholek. This is the Machaber’s shitah!

    So this year, if you REALLY REALLY REALLY are concern to fulfill the mitzvah according to the Mechaber, keep in mind, IT HAS TO BE L’SHEIM SHIMAYIM!!! And if you don’t your just using an excuse to get drunk and ARE NOT FULFILLING A MITZVAH AT ALL לכל הדיעות!!!!

    It goes without saying that anyone who drinks with car-keys on him is a רוציח regardless if he gets in to the car or not!!! GIVE YOUR KEYS TO A DESIGNATED (SOBER) FRIEND “BEFORE” DRINKING!!!!!

    A FREILICH PURIM TO ALL!!!!!!

  7. Who is this Rabbi hoffman? why are you quoting him? he always misses the boat… THE MAIN GEMARA WHERE THE POSKIM DERIVE THE HALACHA IS FROM THE BAVLI IN MEGILA DAF 7 WHERE RABA KILLED R’ ZEIRA AFTER GETTING DRUNK. There are 2 opposite ways in the rishonim to learn the gemara and based on that machlokes it comes out the machlokes whether to get drunk on purim or not.
    FURTHERMORE – What’s the mesorah in Klal Yisroel? What did our parents do? What did our grandparents do? What did they do in Europe? It is important to hear all the sides to the story and Halacha but w/o mesorah what do we have?
    Where did Rabbi Hoffman learn and why are you printing this?

    Moderator’s Response: There was no reason to write your unnecessary hateful remarks about Rabbi Hoffman which we needed to edit. Feel free to email him directly (he places his email address below every article he writes – unlike you, who is a wimp), or would you rather than we just give him your original comment (including the hate) with your contact info?

  8. #5 – You are a beheima.

    Here is a list of people that I personally have seen drunk on Purim.

    Hagon Rav Shmuel Berenbaum ZTL (and I saw him dead drunk on one Simchas Torah as well).
    Hagon Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel Shlita.
    Hagon Rav Mattisyahu Solomon Shlita.

  9. 1. mr. or mrs. moderator
    why don’t you give out your contact info so we can bashmutz you also.
    2. how do you continue to print what he writes w/o asking talmidei chachamim first?
    3. maybe give us a background check on mr. hoffman? in the meantime there is no respect earned so none given

    Moderators Response:

    1- You just bashmuzt us. We are very public.
    2- He is a talmid chacham himself.
    3- We forwarded your katzleib@yahoo.com to him so he can respond about the third point.

    Thanks, and have a wonderful afternoon.

  10. on purim there is a mitzvah to get drunk but today since most people probably will do some averia, so they don’t get drunk, but I remember quite clearly for many years both in America yeshivas and here in EY, people getting drunk and acting very proper (for a drunk).

    perhaps that was a different generation, one that had respect for the rabbonim, respect for the Torah and for their fellow Jews. Maybe something happened to change all this?

    don’t know..

  11. katzleib – First of all it is totally inappropriate to besmirch a person without knowing anything about him!

    Some background for you:

    Rabbi Yair Hoffman, Shlita is a respected Talmid Chochom who has put out quite a number of Halachic books on various subjects. (Google it)

    He was a beloved Talmid of HaRav Henoch Leibowitz, z”l, Rosh Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim (RSA), NY.

    I am not sure who he got Smicha from, but I know he is a well respected Rav in the 5 Towns.

    Although some of his articles and/or statements may be controversial, as far as I know he is always in line with the Daas Torah of our Gedolim.

    OK, now how about you? Who are you and what are your credentials?

  12. I have never posted before but this article moves me to do so. R. Hoffman’s conclusions are at best speculative and at worst seem to start with a bias. It does not appear that he approaches the topic with a modicum of intellectual honesty. Frankly it leads me to be suspicious that his past articles do not arrive at valid conclusions but advance a predetermined agenda.

  13. lakewoodmusmach – do you honestly feel that most people don’t come into a discussion without a biased opinion? Even you appear to be coming in with a bias. It sounds to me from your words that you hold of getting drunk (perhaps even wasted).

    “Intellectual honesty” is not the aspect of coming into a discussion without any biases. Rather, it is the ability to be willing to hear and contemplate the view points of others and the willingness to admit to being wrong and changing one’s view in light of discovering that you erred.

    Being that numerous Gedolim of our generation hold like the more lenient opinions concerning drinking on Purim, it is unjustified of you to attack Rav Hoffman for trying to emphasis the correctness of that side. You may not agree with his arguments, but that doesn’t mean that bottom line he is wrong. It certainly doesn’t justify verbal abuse.

    BTW – did you read my approach? I’m interested in hearing what you thought. (See comment #6)